INDIANAPOLIS – The best compliment I can pay Butler basketball is that every time I watch the Bulldogs, I think of the NCAA Tournament. Even when they don't play well.
Except for a powerhouse performance of Roosevelt Jones, No.17 Butler didn't look sharp in its 70-57 win over Penn on Wednesday at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
But quality of play is only partially why I think ahead to tourney time with Butler. Their back-to-back title game appearances in 2010 and 2011 are only part of it, too.
The more pertinent part of why I'm reminded of March Madness has to do with feel. Butler (11-2) feels like an NCAA tourney team. It started this season against North Carolina, and continued in a huge, huge way in the upset win over Indiana.
Even on an off night against Penn – now 2-10 Penn – the Madness traits of the Bulldogs came to the forefront. They're deep. They're unselfish. They have three-point shooters (though not many three-point makers Wednesday night), driving-and-twisting athletic guards, leaping mid-size guys who follow shots for dunks and elbow-swinging inside players.
They've got a real argument for displaying the best coach in the game in Brad Stevens. I loved late in the game when a Penn player nailed Andrew Smith with an intentional foul. The Butler bench jumped up as if ready to storm the court. Stevens brushed his arm toward them and they all peeled back.
This is a team that could cause trouble in the postseason two months from now if – and with Butler it's usually more when than if – the Bulldogs improve on everything they do well.
They persevere on bad nights. Butler's leading scorer Rotnei Clarke left his three-point shot bouncing all over the place. He missed his first four, hit one, missed the next four. He finished 2-for-11 with six points, 12 below his average.
“He wasn't as good tonight as he's been, pretty simple,” Steven said. “That doesn't mean he won't be great tomorrow. It doesn't mean he won't be great the next day. It was one of those days when he wasn't as good as he usually is.”
Fortunately, a guy like Jones, a young Charles Barkley in the paint at 6-foot-4, 227 pounds, was there to pick things up. Jones had 15 points, five boards and two assists in the first 20 minutes, and finished with a career-high 24 points with six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block
The best sequence for Jones came when Penn was within 52-49. Jones drove twice for baskets, forced a Penn player into a travel and went coast-to-coast for a basket and a 58-49 lead with 5:45 left. For Butler, it meant breathing room, and more signs that Jones can deliver when needed. He had a big game against Indiana, too.
Khyle Marshall reminded everyone he's good at dunking, and added 14 points with five rebounds.
“I thought we won the game because of the power of the interior guys,” Stevens said. “Roosevelt and Khyle in particular, certainly Andrew as well. Our guards didn't produce the way they normally do, but I thought our guys three through five played pretty well and kind of carried us.”
Kellen Dunham, a freshman, came in and made the biggest impression with a miss: He took a three-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire, then hustled to the corner to track down the caroming miss, grabbed and hit a teammate with a pass before he fell out of bounds. That's an example of the “Butler Way.” Dunham scored 10 points coming off the bench.
When teams get to the NCAA Tourney, they need guard play. Clarke, Dunham, Alex Barlow and Chase Stigall have holes in their games, but time to fill them. Clarke, in particular, is the kind of fearless shooter who can get hot when that CBS' March Madness soundtrack starts playing. He won't have many nights like Wednesday.
“He's only here one year,” Stevens said of the Arkansas transfer. “He doesn't get any more nights like that.”
Butler can't afford to have Clarke be as cold in a couple months, when the Madness hits. But it was good for the rest of the team to see it could find a way without its leading scorer. It's January, and the opponent is Penn, so it's the best time to learn that lesson.
One thing Butler has done this season to help tournament toughness is improve the schedule, playing Xavier, Marquette, North Carolina, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana and Vanderbilt. That's more impressive than their Atlantic 10 schedule, which starts next week.
Is this a complete Butler team? Not yet. Does it have a superstar like Gordon Hayward or Shelvin Mack? Not necessarily, although Clarke and Jones can be tough to guard, and Smith is 6-11. Stevens knows how to mold 6-11 guys into better players in March than they are in January.
This wasn't tourney-worthy performance by Butler. But the approach and determination Butler always displays inevitably gives me a March Madness reaction.
If that can happen on an off-night against Penn, imagine the vibe on Jan. 19 when west-cost cousin Gonzaga comes to town. They'll probably need Clarke to make some that night.